Eating for three

Correctly managing triplet-bearing ewes now will help maximise lamb survival and increase ewe profitability in spring.
Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Key points for maximising triplet lamb survival

  • Feeding ewes to maximise intake is critical in late pregnancy.
  • Triplet-bearing ewes require high-quality ryegrass based pastures of a minimum 1200 kg DM/ha or 4cm.
  • At lambing, triplet-bearing ewes should be 18–20kg heavier than they were at mating.
  • Tightening feed intake in late pregnancy will not reduce birth difficulties and is unlikely to reduce bearings – it will increase the chance of metabolic disorders.
  • Do not set-stock too early – and set-stock triplet ewes at a maximum of 10 ewes/ha.
  • Shelter is important as triplet lambs have lower body temperatures at birth than twin lambs.
  • Steep paddocks should be avoided as these can increase ewe – lamb separation.
  • Ewes feeding triplet lambs high quality pastures or forages such as lucerne, clover or chicory will increase performance.

Bringing together the findings of a number of Beef + Lamb New Zealand-funded triplet research projects and trials carried out by Massey University, AgResearch, Poukawa Research Farm and B+LNZ’s Innovation Farm programme, the common denominators to improving triplet lamb survival were feeding and shelter, with feeding from late pregnancy through to weaning being the most important.

From four to six weeks out from lambing, triplet-bearing ewes should be fed to maximise their intake and require high-quality ryegrass based pastures covers of a minimum of 1200 kg DM/ha – or 4cm in height. This height maximises the ewe’s intake at every mouthful. Quality is crucial and the pasture should have an ME of 11 MJ/kg DM – this means plenty of leaf and no dead material.

Rumen size between twin and triplet-bearing ewes does not differ, so triplet ewes do not need to be separated out when feed is plentiful. However, if feed is short, then triplet-bearing ewes should be prioritised for supplementary feeding.

High-quality supplements such as grain, peas or sheep nuts are recommended over bulky, high-fibre feeds such as average to low-quality silage or hay. Farm trials showed there was no benefit to feeding high-protein supplements to ewes already well-fed on high-quality pasture.

In late pregnancy, triplet-bearing ewes should be at a minimum Body Condition Score of 3. At birth a ewe with triplets will have around 18–20kg of lambs, fluid and membranes on board. If ewes are not 18–20kg heavier at lambing than mating then they will have lost body reserves, which will reduce lamb survival and growth rates.

Research has shown that tightening feed levels in late pregnancy will not reduce birth difficulties and is unlikely to reduce the incidence of bearings, it will however increase the risk of metabolic disorders such as Sleepy Sickness.

Underfeeding in late pregnancy will also result in smaller, less vigorous lambs and weaker mothering behaviour. Colostrum and milk intake will be reduced and lambs will be lighter at weaning.

At lambing

Scientists caution against set-stocking triplet-bearing ewes too early as there is a risk feed will all be eaten before the end of lambing. This will impact negatively on lactation and lamb growth rates.
If feed is short, triplet-ewes should be given the priority pasture.

To minimise disturbance at lambing, triplet-bearing ewes need plenty of room and therefore set-stocked at no more than 10 ewes/ha. The longer the ewe stays at the birth site, the stronger the bond between ewes and lambs.

At birth, triplet lambs have a lower body temperature than twins and will lose heat faster due to their smaller body size. Good shelter is therefore important to improve survival.

Feeding to weaning

A ewe feeding three lambs as well as herself, needs access to high quality pastures or forages. To maximise intake pastures should not be grazed below 1200kg DM/ha or 4cm. Forages such as clover, lucerne and herbs will improve lamb growth rates through to weaning and help ewes recover body condition sooner.

Artificial rearing

Scientists and farmers have carried out several trials looking at artificially-rearing triplet lambs. These include work at Poukawa Research Farm, Matt and Lynley Wyeth’s Innovation Farm programme, Andrew and Gretchen Freeman’s Innovation Farm programme and the Dawkins Innovation Farm programme.

The Poukawa work found that at-risk lambs can be successfully reared on fortified cow colostrum and meal. Colostrum must be collected from the cow within 24 hours of calving and fed to the lamb within the first day of its life.

The cost of hand-rearing lambs on fortified cow’s milk was around $30/lamb excluding labour.

Find out more

For more information on triplet management and trials go to: https://beeflambnz.com/search?term=triplet+management